The sport has deep cultural roots in Alaska's whaling industry.
FAIRBANKS – The concept is simple: Kick the suspended ball with both feet and then land on both feet.
The competitors make it look much easier than it is though.
“It’s a whole other level of difficulty,” said Nick Hanson, a member of Team Alaska from Unalakleet. “You’re not just putting a ball through a hoop every single time. It’s such a small target and it’s so high up there. You’ve got to really focus on being accurate and being explosive enough to get as high as you can get.”
Some of the men can reach up to eight feet. So what does it take to jump that high?
“A lot of confidence,” laughed Casey Ferguson from Team Alaska. “It takes a lot of skill, a lot of practice, repetition, stretching.”
In addition to the stiff competition, the athletes say they also appreciate the cultural significance of the sport.
“Hunters would do the two-foot high kick to signal a bowhead whale was caught. The two feet going up in the air would represent the fluke of the bowhead whale,” Ferguson explained.
“My family is from Barrow and the two-foot high kick did represent the bowhead whale being caught. They would do the two-foot high kick and say, ‘OK, we need people to come help bring the whale in’ or ‘we need people to get the village ready because we’re bringing in a whale,'” Hanson said. “I like that cultural aspect of it.”
For Alaskan athletes, these games are a chance to learn more about their history and pass along the traditions of their ancestors.
“For youth, if they have something they’re proud of they’re going to work a lot harder, they’re going to stay out of trouble. They’re going to push themselves for a better future,” said Erica Meckel from Fairbanks.
“It makes it that much more important for us. I come from Chevak where my culture is still pretty strong and because of that, it’s important to me,” Ferguson said.
Participating in the games is one way to keep the cultural traditions going for generations to come.